Posted on July 3, 2016 · Posted in Leadership, Lean, Lean Thoughts, Toyota Principles, Uncategorized












Toyota Principle #14: Become a learning organization through relentless reflection (Hansei) and continuous improvement (Kaizen). 

This principle is a lot more complex than it first appears. First off, we need to understand what it takes to be a learning organization.

A learning organization is one in which employees feel their thoughts are welcome, respected. That doesn’t just mean that they are allowed to express their thoughts, but that their thoughts are welcomed, weighed, and either acted on or feedback given.

What does continuous improvement mean?   It starts with the belief that every task can be performed better: more simply, less costly, with higher quality, etc.

Continuous improvement is absolutely dependent on an idea-friendly  environment.

People only recommend improvements when they feel their recommendation is welcome and that something will come of it.

Of course, not every recommendation is worthy of implementation, so leaders need to provide feedback, explaining why it was not used. That leads to learning and improving the improvement process.

Something else that is critical to continuous improvement is relentless reflection. Think of this as the kind of thinking that takes place when you’re in the shower, meditating or running. It involves examining a problem or opportunity (different sides of the same coin), and trying to devise a workable solution.

This reflection isn’t a one-and-done activity.  It’s  relentless.

Some martial arts use a teaching system called Shu-Ha-Ri. It is also used by Toyota and provides the basis for continuous improvement.

This three-part system begins in the Shu phase, when a master teaches a student how to perform a scripted task (Standard Work). As the student performs the task, the master oversees and provides feedback. The master doesn’t just provide instructive feedback. They are also accountable for the quality of the student’s efforts.

When the student is able to perform the task correctly every time, the master backs off, allowing the student to work unsupervised for periods of time. The student is now accountable for the quality of their own work.

This Ha phase is the first time that the student can express creativity in the performance of the task. Although the form is still inflexible, the student may make small adaptations to the rules. The master has ultimate say over the outcome of the adaptations.

By the Ri phase, the student is performing the task instinctively, without thought. They are working on muscle memory. Totally unsupervised, the student is free to improve on the entire task. This is when the student may become part of the continuous improvement cycle.

Because changes in one part of an organization can affect the outcome elsewhere, change in a Lean institution isn’t undertaken willy-nilly. Even in the Ri phase, the student cannot change Standard Work on their own. Instead, they are encouraged to offer suggestions based on their deep understanding of the rules and form of the work.

It’s sometimes easy to see successful organizations as the result of a single giant leap forward.  Rarely is that so.

While Lean institutions also pursue major breakthroughs, their ongoing success is dependent on every worker making hundreds of small improvements in what they do. The average number of implemented improvement suggestions at the Georgetown, Kentucky Toyota plant is 11. Eleven implemented improvements every year by every employee.

I am always astounded to learn that some organizations don’t even have a mechanism for inputting suggestions. The average number of implemented improvement suggestions in most organizations is less than one; a fraction. Can you see why learning organizations have an advantage?

Imagine if every employee in your organization had 11 implemented improvement ideas each year.   How would that change your products, your processes, your service, your customer’s appreciation of you?